So we now read that there are further tensions inside the Liberal Party here in Australia. One might be forgiven for thinking, ‘Wow, a few MPs have finally grown some cojones and are trying to do something about the Party’s relentless leftwards drift.” You know what I mean: upping the pay offer to public servants, being even weaker with the rent-seekers in the renewables game, caving in over Bjorn Lomborg, mooting yet more revenue via a whopping big GST rise. Then there is the billion dollars here for global warming projects and the billion dollars there for ‘innovation’, as if governments can pick winners, which the evidence says they can’t. If none of that was enough, there is Malcolm Turnbull disgracefully taking tea with the ridiculous Gillian Triggs and being even worse on free speech than Abbott. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Maybe, I thought to myself, a few MPs are actually trying to, you know, stand up for right-of-centre positions and policies and that’s why there’s tension inside Liberal Party ranks.
Silly me! No, the tensions have to do with – wait for it, because it’s other-worldly – who to support as the government’s candidate for United Nations Secretary General. Will it be New Zealand’s Helen Clark? Or will it be Australia’s Kevin Rudd? This is what is causing angst inside our left-in-actions, right-in-name Liberal Party.
Now most readers will be pretty clear about Kevin Rudd. You’ll know his track record in office as prime minister (big government, big spending, politically correct to the hilt, but mixed always with incompetence). You’ll know his tendency to become somewhat frustrated with those around him, the people who can’t speak back to him because they’d lose their jobs. You’ll know what many of his fellow Labor Party colleagues think of him. Were one to indulge in the art of understatement, you might say that he’s not the most obvious person a Liberal government would want to support to be a future Secretary General of the United Nations’.
But what of Ms. Clark? As it happened, I lived in New Zealand for eleven very pleasant years, many of them over-lapping Helen Clark’s time as Prime Minister. If anything she’d be a worse choice for a right-of-centre leaning government because – unlike Mr Rudd – she was competent. She favoured at least as many left-of-centre outcomes as did Mr Rudd, but she was miles and miles more effective in achieving them. She kept her party under control. She won three elections, before losing in 2008. Her government’s policies were to the left of Mr. Rudd’s. Worse, my guess is that she actually believed in all her left-leaning policies — believed in a way that one can never quite be sure was matched by Mr. Rudd’s sincerity. (an interesting question: which is preferable when confronted with two choices. Person A seems to care only about himself and has massive lashings of egotism that appear to infect all of his actions. Person B really only cares about pushing through a suite of policies, almost all of which are bad ideas. Do you prefer A or B? It’s debatable.)
At any rate, our latest former Prime Minister appears to have promised the current New Zealand Prime Minister that Australia would support Clark. I would rather walk over glowing embers than see her as the UN’s Secretary-General. The current Turnbull government, by contrast, or at least Julie Bishop, is mooting supporting Mr. Rudd. Again, why? Why? Why?
I suppose one can mount a case that, for ‘real politik’ reasons, it’s not a bad idea to support our South Pacific neighbour once in a while, the hope being that they will support us. Of course that in no way explains why New Zealand’s right-of-centre Prime Minister John Key is backing Helen Clark and asked for Mr. Abbott’s support. But given that Key did ask, I suppose one might calculate that giving that support carries more benefits than costs. Personally, I don’t think so. I think a Helen Clark tenure as Secretary-General would bring with it the worst sort of left-wing claptrap. But maybe Mr. Abbott figured she can’t win and so a gesture of support would’t hurt.
As to why this government would support Mr. Rudd, given everything that every member of the current frontbench has said about him over the last few years, well it’s staggering. Do you want to know why regular voters are cynical about politicians? This is your answer. They look out for each other. They disregard ideas and policies and things they promise voters whenever self-interest comes within a few hundred miles of their chauffeur driven limos and business-class perks. You can hear the thought process: ‘If I support one of theirs then, when the next gravy train rolls into sight one day, maybe they’ll support me.’ Values and principles and things such as ‘what sort of person do we really want in this job?’ count for nothing.
OK, that’s too harsh. I suppose you could try to make the argument that it’s worth having someone with an Aussie passport – anyone at all, it matters not whom it is – as the winner of this contest, or any contest, or indeed any job. All other facts count for nothing. All questions of costs-versus-benefits will be ignored. It’s the symbolism, baby, nothing other than that. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi.
Welcome, too, just by the way, to the thinking that drives the Republic movement in this country, which rests on exactly the same notion that nothing else counts but the symbolism of having someone with an Aussie passport in the job. It is an outlook that disregards all other costs and benefits and wallows in, well, a bizarre nationalism that many of supporters of a republic would otherwise detest.
But I digress. There is much out there that really should be stoking all sorts of tensions in our nominally liberal party. But whether to support Tweedle-Rudd or Tweedle-Clark isn’t one of them. Ditch them both and support a person you actually believe ought to get the job.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland is the author of Democracy in Decline